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Israel: US Embassy

Volume 632: debated on Thursday 7 December 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the implications of President Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

I thank the right hon. Lady for an important and urgent question.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in her statement yesterday,

“We disagree with the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement. We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it.

Our position on the status of Jerusalem is clear and long-standing: it should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states. In line with relevant Security Council Resolutions, we regard East Jerusalem as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

We share President Trump’s desire to bring an end to this conflict. We welcome his commitment”

in his statement

“to a two-state solution negotiated between the parties, and note the importance of his clear acknowledgement that the final status of Jerusalem, including the sovereign boundaries within the city, must be subject to negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

We encourage the US Administration to now bring forward detailed proposals for an Israel-Palestinian settlement.

To have the best chances of success, the peace process must be conducted in an atmosphere free from violence. We call on all parties to work together to maintain calm”

at a crucial time.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I welcome the opening remarks from the Minister of State.

For all of us in this House and beyond who have worked tirelessly for decades in the hope of lasting peace in the middle east, yesterday’s decision was an absolute hammer blow to those hopes. There is a reason why, before yesterday, no other country would locate its embassy in Jerusalem and no other major country would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital: because to do either thing, let alone both at the same time, confers legitimacy on Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem—an occupation with no basis in international law, and a permanent barrier to achieving the political settlement that we all wish for.

The sheer recklessness of that decision needs no debate. Donald Trump is not crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; he is deliberately setting fire to the theatre. And then he has the unbelievable cheek to claim that he is doing this to move forward the peace process, when in reality he is setting it back decades.

As usual—as with the Muslim ban, the Paris agreement and the Iran deal—the question for the UK Government is twofold. First, what are they going to do about this mess? With Donald Trump wilfully deserting America’s role as peace broker between Israel and Palestine, how will we work with our other allies to fill that void?

Secondly, when will the Government admit that they have got their strategy with Donald Trump totally wrong? They told us that holding his hand, hugging him close and indulging him with the offer of a state visit was the best way of wielding influence and shaping his policies. But on Jerusalem, as on so many issues before, they have been made to look like fools: weak, ignored and entirely without influence. When will they realise that bending over for a bully only encourages their behaviour? What our country needs, and what the world needs, is a British Government prepared to stand up to him.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. I agree that a difficult consensus has been broken. She is right that the international consensus around the status of Jerusalem has been one of the things we have all held on to during a period when the ultimate settlement—the final settlement—has yet to be agreed. It has always been seen as part of the process that, at the end of that negotiated settlement, the status of Jerusalem would be confirmed. The United States has taken a decision about itself and about the location of its embassy. In answer to her final point about the United Kingdom’s position vis-à-vis President Trump and the United States, we make it clear that we disagree with the decision. The Prime Minister has said that it is unhelpful. It is not a decision we would take.

We have now to decide, as the right hon. Lady said, what we do now. The first thing we have done is to co-sponsor a meeting tomorrow at the UN Security Council when this will be discussed. We have co-sponsored that with our European partners because it provides the opportunity to take stock of where we are and how we can move forward. There are two options: one is that we just dwell on this particular decision of the United States, as people will for a while, and just leave it sitting there; and the other is to decide what we do now. It is imperative that we now see the work that the President’s envoys have been doing, which they have shared with a number of partners. That now needs to come forward—more quickly, perhaps, than people anticipated—and then we can see what there is to work on for friends both of Israel and of the Palestinians. The process has to move on. If the process were derailed by this, it would compound the unhelpfulness of the decision. That is what we want to talk about.

The right hon. Lady mentioned our longer-term relationship with the United States, which is very deep: defence, intelligence, security, trade—it covers a multitude of things. It has been in place for centuries and it will go on for centuries, regardless of leadership. We respect an elected President but we know that the relationship with the United States is much deeper, and the United Kingdom will continue to honour that relationship in its many forms.

If the President has a cunning plan which he has not shared with any of his allies, may I invite my right hon. Friend to speculate on what it might be?

If there is, this is a decision that has clearly been welcomed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the state of Israel. There is no doubt that Israel sees the United States as a great friend. There is no surprise to any of us in relation to that, and nor does it change anything particularly markedly in terms of relationships in the region. Perhaps, when proposals come forward, if concessions are needed by the state of Israel in order to make the agreement that we all wish to see which will be supported by all sides, there just might now be an extra area of pressure that can be applied because a friend of Israel has done what the President has done.

I have no inkling of the thinking of the President of the United States. But, as everything in this whole business is used in one way or another, there are just possibly those within the state of Israel who will recognise the limb that the President has gone out on, and perhaps, when push comes to shove, that might be of some assistance. As for us, we are very clear on our position. We disagree with this and we will continue to work with all partners to seek the peace settlement that is so urgently needed.

President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv is not only reckless and wrong but throws the entire peace process into jeopardy. There is no denying that this decision seriously hinders a two-state solution to the conflict. The reaction from the international community has been overwhelming. Pope Francis said, “I cannot remain silent.” The UN Secretary-General spoke of his “great anxiety”. The European Union has expressed “serious concern”. I could go on.

Tomorrow, the UN will meet amid concerns that Mr Trump’s announcement is in breach of both international law and UN resolutions. Will the Minister therefore take a moment to condemn this reckless decision in the strongest possible terms and assure the House that all efforts will be made tomorrow at the UN meeting to have the decision reversed?

Regardless of political differences across this Chamber, we share the values of tolerance, inclusion and respect across these islands. Taking that into consideration, will the Minister today completely rule out a state visit from President Trump and send out a clear message that his divisive and reckless actions are not welcome here?

We will allow the peace process to be derailed by this only if we interpret the decision as doing just that, as opposed to providing a different opportunity to take the peace process forward. The envoys are still working; they are still in contact with Arab states and Arab partners, as well as the state of Israel. As I said, that work should continue with greater urgency. The risks in the region are even clearer this morning than they were yesterday before the President spoke—risks that many colleagues in this House know full well because of our frequent visits to the region. The only way that those risks can be quelled is by demonstrating to those who seek hope for the process that there is still a chance of hope. The United Kingdom must do nothing to cut off that possibility. That is why we have to keep urging the peace process forward. The deficit of trust with the United States because of its decision will be noted, but it will remain an important part of discussions for the future.

On the hon. Gentleman’s other two questions, we co-sponsored the meeting with the UN, so it is our intention to work with partners urgently on moving this forward. On the President’s visit, again, the Prime Minister has made clear her views on that: an invitation has been extended, but there is no date set for the visit.

I welcome what the Minister of State has said this morning. I thought I would share with the House a sentence from a letter from the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem to President Trump:

“peace…cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all.”

That was echoed yesterday by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said:

“The status quo of the City of Jerusalem is one of the few stable elements of hope for peace”.

He urged us all to

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”.

I think that we would all concur with those words. The status of Jerusalem is of immense importance in the region to all faiths and all parties who live there. It is essential that the consensus that Jerusalem is for all be honoured. As I stated, it is very clear that our position on the final status of Jerusalem, as part of the final settlement to be agreed between the parties, is the most important thing, not anyone’s unilateral decision about what they think about Jerusalem.

The UK Government have previously said that they would recognise Palestine when the time was right. Is the time not right now?

Our view has been that recognition of Palestine should come at the time when that is in the best interests of the prospects for peace and the peace process. That remains our position for now.

President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel isolates the USA. It has been condemned by European and middle eastern leaders, and even by Pope Francis. All say that this hostile act is ignorant and undermines the delicate peace process. Will the Minister confirm that we robustly maintain, with the States, a position of seeking a two-state solution, although I suggest he begins by pointing out where Jerusalem is to President Trump?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I assure her that there is no change in the United Kingdom’s position, either on the final status of Jerusalem, or on the need for a two-state solution.

Further to the Minister’s answer to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who asked, “If not now, when?”, the Minister will be aware that one of the most grievous consequences of this decision is the impact on Palestinian public opinion. More and more people are giving up on a two-state solution. With Britain’s particular historical responsibilities, is it not time to honour the overwhelming vote in this House back in 2014 and recognise Palestine as a state?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I make frequent visits to the region—I was there recently—and yesterday I expressed to the Palestinian representative in London my views on the President of the United States’ anticipated speech. Recognition of the state of Palestine is not necessarily a consequence of what we heard yesterday. It is not tit for tat; it is more important than that. Accordingly, it should be a decision made by the United Kingdom at a time when we believe it is in the best interests of the process of peace. That is the view for now.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that UK aid contributions to the Palestinian Authority are significant in maintaining the stability of the region, as they have historically been, which will ultimately help to drive forward the negotiations on a two-state solution and the peaceful settlement that we wish to see?

Indeed. I spoke just last week to the Palestinian Authority’s Education and Finance Ministers to talk about the latest tranche of support that the United Kingdom is giving to the Palestinian Authority. It is provided in the clear belief and understanding that the Palestinian territories are moving towards statehood. That is the purpose of our support for them, and I re-emphasised that and made it clear. That is where the hope comes from, because there has to be hope for the Palestinians and those living on the west bank and in Gaza. It is our job to make sure that nothing in yesterday’s decision by another power makes that more difficult, and that is what we will be working towards.

Does the Minister agree that this is a sea change, not just another setback, because it removes America as an honest broker and changes the facts on the ground so that an independent Palestinian state is not really possible any more? That is the view of senior Palestinians such as Husam Zomlot and Saeb Erekat. What plans do the Government have to move matters forward in their discussions with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and do they include at least a timetable for recognition?

I have said what I wanted to say on recognition. Let us talk about the peace process, which the hon. Gentleman started his question with. It appears clear that the position of the United States will have changed materially in the eyes of those working for peace in the region because of yesterday’s statement. I would draw attention—rightly, I hope—to the parts of the President’s speech dealing with the need for negotiations and a two-state solution, but the nature of the United States as a broker in the region will have been affected. I am sure that we will discuss tomorrow at the UN how the process can be taken forward. The United States will continue to play an important part, but there is no doubt that there is a trust deficit because of yesterday’s announcement. It is for other states to fill that gap, to ensure that the prospects for peace are not diminished.

Is the reality not that the peace process has been stalled for 24 years, since 1993, and that what we need following this announcement is direct peace talks between the state of Israel and the Palestinian representatives? If we can get from the United Nations a brokered position whereby those peace talks start, this decision could end up having been quite a good one.

I have no sense that yesterday’s decision made a contribution to advancing the peace process. I understand what the President said, and he had a particular logic in doing so, although I am not sure I share it. I do share the view my hon. Friend expressed in his last point—what happens in the region can be either a blow or an opportunity, but usually it is both. We must make sure that the opportunity provided by yesterday’s statement is not lost. There is a new role for others to play, but ultimately it must be about what we can do to assist direct negotiations rather than push them back.

Trump’s rash desperation to tick off every ill-judged, divisive campaign soundbite now threatens the peace process in one of the most volatile geopolitical regions in the world. The Government have welcomed his words about a two-state solution, but those pronouncements count for little when his actions, coupled with the expansion of Israeli illegal settlements, mean that the prospect of a two-state solution seems more distant than ever. The Government are clearly limited in their ability to influence the US position, but surely it is now time for them to listen to the clear will of this House and for the UK to confirm our commitment to a two-state solution by recognising the state of Palestine, as we do the state of Israel.

I do not want to repeat what I said earlier, but the United Kingdom’s position has a degree of flexibility. The House is right that we have to make a collective judgment about when the time is right in the best interests of peace. The Government then have to make up their own mind about the circumstances and what is right, and they will do that, but colleagues’ views are known.

President Trump has said that the United States remains committed to a two-state solution, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that the British Government will be pointing out to this country’s strongest ally that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem will be interpreted by many as American acquiescence in Israel’s illegal programme of settlement on the west bank, which is itself the biggest impediment to a two-state solution?

Is not the reality that President Trump’s announcement yesterday has fatally undermined the US’s credibility in brokering a peace between Israel and Palestine? In that light, is it not more vital than ever that the UK and the European Union demonstrate—in deed, as well as in word—that respect for international law must be the cornerstone of any lasting peace? Will the Minister tell the House what action he will take to implement in practice the UK’s obligations under the paragraph in UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed just under 12 months ago, that calls on all states

“to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”?

What, in practice, will Britain do to implement that?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have followed both UN and EU practice in clearly labelling produce from settlement areas—those areas that have been occupied—and we have also been clear about that in our advice to business. To that extent, we have recognised the importance of following through on resolution 2334, for which the United Kingdom of course voted.

I would say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to other Members, that many of these issues have, crucially, to be decided in the final settlement between the parties. There is a greater need for urgency about that this morning than there was yesterday, and it is towards that that the United Kingdom can and will bend its efforts, which is why we are meeting partners tomorrow. I will be in Paris tomorrow for a meeting of the international support group for Lebanon, and we will be talking about this on the margins. There is a need for greater urgency and for making use of this opportunity.

Although we absolutely disagree with the US moving its embassy, will my right hon. Friend reassure me that we will continue to seek, and work with the US to find, a long-term two-state solution?

I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, the work of the two envoys continues. The United States will obviously continue to play a part in such processes in the region, and I refer to my earlier answers on what we are trying to do to help this process.

I think the Minister understands the perception of yesterday’s announcement in the Palestinian community. What can he do to prevent the complete erosion of faith in this process by Palestinians seeking to find a two-state solution and an accommodation on their border with Israel, and would not recognition be such a move?

The first thing we can do is to make clear our disagreement with the policy of the United States. The second thing is to work with partners to provide an assurance that the peace process will go on and to give people hope. The third thing is to say that the process must be continued with renewed urgency to get the result that we all want. That is the UK’s position.

I know the Minister will recognise that our relationship with the United States is far deeper than the question of whoever happens to be the current occupant of the White House, and the same is true of our commitment to the peace process in the middle east. Will he reassure me that we will stick to the original vision in the Balfour declaration of two democratic, prosperous states living side by side, and that we will continue to seek such a solution?

Yes. We referred earlier this year to the Balfour declaration as “unfinished business”, and that is still our view. Again, yesterday’s announcement gives renewed urgency to dealing with the second part of that equation.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your leadership on the 45th President of the United States? Several months ago, you indicated your disinclination for him to address Parliament, and you are being proved more and more right by the day.

When the Minister meets his US counterpart at the UN, will he convey to him the words of the young Palestinian human rights activist—you hosted him at the Amnesty International reception in your rooms yesterday, Mr Speaker—who said that by taking this unilateral decision, the President is flouting international law, international consensus, and the hopes and dreams of all those who harbour a wish for a two-state solution?

I am sure that the words cited by the hon. Lady will be drawn to the attention of those in the United States. It is our duty to ensure that hopes and promises are not lost in these circumstances.

I completely share the Government’s view on this statement by the President of the United States, but I do not believe that it brings the process for a two-state solution to an end. Indeed, I believe it gives greater emphasis to the work that we can carry on to achieve that. Does the Minister agree?

As I said earlier, the peace process towards a two-state solution will come to an end only when the parties themselves feel that it cannot go any further. It is vital that we and all our partners—including the United States—reaffirm that commitment to the two-state solution, and do our level best to ensure that it is not lost.

Given Trump’s previous attitude to settlements, it is clear that this move might embolden further attempts at demolitions and settlement expansion. Is the Minister aware of the real risk that the west bank might be further subdivided? We talk about a two-state solution, but before it is too late, will he please recognise the state of Palestine?

I hear colleagues’ comments on that, and the Government’s position is clear: it is better for us to continue our efforts to support legal attempts to prevent demolitions, which we do through our financial support to the Norwegian Refugee Council, and to allow cases to be taken to the Israeli courts. Seventy-nine per cent. of all cases taken forward have resulted in demolitions being stopped, and that is where our effective action is on behalf of those people’s rights.

Although the Minister acknowledges the right of any country to decide where to locate its embassy, I fear that the already fragile prospects for moving the peace process forward are further and significantly diminished by this move. In his welcome reaffirmation of the Government’s commitment to a two-state solution, will the Minister continue to devote his not-inconsiderable efforts to driving that forward and delivering an Israel that is secure within its borders and whose citizens are free from the threat of terrorism, living alongside a viable and truly independent Palestine?

My hon. Friend knows the region well, and he puts it very clearly—that is the hope of all Members of the House, and it has been for too long. We must now work out how we can move forward from this position with renewed urgency to make it happen.

Unlike any of his predecessors, President Trump has dangerously inflamed every frozen world conflict that he has addressed. Has the time come to see this man as someone who believes in America first, and the rest of the world nowhere? Should we now say that the invitation to him for an informal, or formal, visit is rescinded? People can be invited, and they can be disinvited.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. An invitation has been given and no date has been set, and that remains the position of the United Kingdom Government.

This is the second urgent question that you have granted in as many weeks, Mr Speaker, so that Ministers can come to the Dispatch Box and condemn the egregious behaviour of the President of the United States. What is the point of the special relationship if such condemnations have absolutely no effect on the President’s behaviour? Can we even say that a special relationship still exists?

When a decision that we disagree with has been made by our friends, the special relationship gives Ministers the opportunity to explain our position on that to the House and the public, and to maintain that despite some of those decisions, the special relationship that is broad and deep across the piece goes on, even if we disagree with certain political decisions.

UN Security Council resolution 465 of 1980,

“Determines that all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem…have no legal validity”.

How is Israel complying with that?

The hon. Lady knows the region well—Israel is not complying with that. That is why we hold that land to be occupied, and why we voted for resolution 2334 that restated elements of what she has just said. What we need now is leadership. Forty years ago, President Sadat came to Israel to make peace—that is one anniversary we have not said much about this year, and it should be remembered. It takes bold leadership by those in the region to make a difference, and perhaps after yesterday, it is now time to see more of that.

Diolch, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister agree that Jonathan Freedland, writing yesterday in The Guardian, summed up President Trump’s announcement best when he described it as an act of diplomatic arson?

It is not the responsibility of Ministers of the Crown to comment on articles by Guardian journalists, or any journalist, no matter what their opinions may be. The House will make a judgment, but the important thing for Ministers and Governments to talk about is how to de-escalate tensions and how to recognise positive elements in any situation in order to move forward. The place has enough rhetoric and enough people willing to take to the streets for all sorts of reasons. The United Kingdom will not play a part in that.

Let us be absolutely clear: this announcement is the latest incidence of the Trump Administration showing contempt for international law and the rest of the world. Let me ask the Minister again. Surely it is right, at the UN Security Council tomorrow, for the UK to commit, as most of the world has, to the long-overdue step of recognising the state of Palestine?

The United Kingdom will restate tomorrow our determination to see a final settlement with peace between the nations—two viable states—and our determination that the statehood we wish to see in Palestine is agreed. Our position is that we will recognise when it is the right time in relation to peace. We will make that decision.

It is 12 years since I visited Ma’ale Adumim, a huge settlement just outside Jerusalem that is now home to 41,000 people. Emboldened by Trump’s decision, the Israeli Parliament is for the first time introducing a law to annex that settlement. Does the Minister agree that the legitimisation of a settlement built illegally on Palestinian land is a very dangerous move? Will he join me in condemning it?

The hon. Lady raises again the difficult issue of legality in relation to settlements. There is evidence that the Israeli Government have been influenced by the United States and others in some of their decisions, including legal decisions, in relation to Jerusalem. Our position remains clear: the settlements are illegal and must be dealt with as part of an overall settlement. We support challenges to the legality of the settlements, when it is legitimate and right to do so, by those who might be affected by them or by demolitions. That will remain the policy.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

European Union (Approvals) Act 2017.